What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell

18074329 What I Had Before I Had You: A Novel
by Sarah Cornwell

I agreed to read and review this book for TLC Book Tours.

In this haunting debut novel, we meet Olivia, recently split from her husband, and bringing her two children back to her childhood hometown on the New Jersey shore for what she hopes will be a fresh start.  Her adolescent daughter Carrie is pulling away from her, and her nine-year old son Daniel has recently been diagnosed with early onset bipolar disorder – which, as it happens, runs in the family.  On their first evening back in Ocean Vista, Olivia turns her back for a moment, and in that blink of an eye, Daniel has disappeared.  She will spend the night searching for him, and in the process will be assaulted by memories of the fateful summer of 1987 when everything changed for her.

Olivia’s mother, Myla, had always been strange.  She was the town psychic for one thing, and kept a shrine to her supposedly stillborn twins, insisted that their ghosts were present.  She would alternately smother Olivia, and abandon her for days, sometimes weeks at a time while she disappeared on mysterious trips.  The summer Olivia is 15, she falls in with a crowd of kids who open her eyes to other possibilities, and she begins breaking away from her mother in a very dramatic way.

I was an adolescent in the 1980s, too, so it’s set in a time period that resonated with me.  I could relate to Olivia on many level’s, too – the complicated relationship with her mentally ill mother, and the thrill and daring of going down dangerous paths trying to find oneself.

Told in Olivia’s voice and alternating between the present and the past, I was hooked from the first page.  While parts of the storyUnknown are a bit implausible, the author makes up for it with her prose that feels like butter melting in your mouth – you just want to savor it.

You can read more about this award-winning writer here.

I really enjoyed this book, which also got a small write-up in People magazine’s book reviews last week.


Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

prep Prep: A Novel
by Curtis Sittenfeld

This probably isn’t a book I would have chosen on my own, but it’s my book club’s book for this month, so I decided to give it a shot and ended up really enjoying it.

Prep tells the story, in first person, of Lee Fiora, an average girl from a working-class family in the midwest who convinces her parents to allow her to attend a boarding school.  She is accepted to the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts on scholarship and leaves home at the age of 14.  The story covers all four years of her high school experience at Ault, where the majority of the kids come from wealthy families, class distinctions are apparent, and cliques are prevalent.  As a scholarship student, and as a homogenous mid-westerner, Lee seems to reside on the periphery of things, hyper-observant of those around her, and painfully self-aware.  Over the course of her four years at Ault, she invests in complicated friendships, enters into her first sexual entanglement, grows more distant from and disdainful of her parents, and ponders a whole lot.

Although the boarding/prep school experience is not one that many people can relate to, the angst of being a teenager trying to find a place for oneself is pretty universal.  A couple of things that struck me were how well Sittenfeld expressed that exquisite self-awareness I remember having as an adolescent – when I was so aware of my every thought and feeling – though I couldn’t necessarily name every feeling – and I could sit for what seemed like hours thinking my thoughts and analyzing it all.  The other thing was how heartbreakingly accurate Sittenfeld paints the plight of so many young girls – and women, too! – who allow themselves to be used and demeaned, who agree to do things they may not actually want to do, because they believe it will make a boy like them.

The book is a little on the long side at nearly 450 pages, and there’s no real climax  to the story, but I found it to be well written, engaging, and relatable.